My father is the best person I know.
We haven’t always had an easy or close relationship. He never wanted children. He said that he didn’t know how to be a parent and he didn’t particularly want to learn, but my mother wanted children and marriage is a compromise. They adopted me five years after they bought a house. I grew up in that house, and that they still live in it.
My father had a less than happy childhood. He’s never been specific but he has said that the way he was treated would today be classified as abusive. I do know he nearly died as an infant, and his sister did die, because of an Rh factor incompatibility. His mother was, therefore, overprotective.
His relationship with his father was worse.
When my father was little, he had a pedal car. He would get in and pedal for a few feet before he would climb back out, throw open the hood, and tinker with the “engine.” When he was satisfied with his repairs, he would climb back in the car and pedal a few more feet before repeating the procedure.
His love of cars never wavered.
As a teenager, he and a buddy bought a race car. His buddy drove and my dad was the pit crew. They strictly raced in legitimate meets, absolutely no street racing, and he encouraged his friends to do the same.
One night, a friend of Dad’s was involved in a street race. As the two cars flew down the road, a neighbor’s car backed out in front of his friend. The accident left one man without his wife and child and my father’s friend horribly injured. The paramedics left him for last, after the bodies were removed, to punish him.
All of his friends abandoned him, but not Dad. He went to see him in jail several times while he was awaiting trial. After he was convicted of manslaughter, my father saw him for the last time. As they were taking him away, his friend said, “When Mom asks you to go to the house, please go.” Dad didn’t know what he meant and there was no time to clarify.
That night, he committed suicide. At the funeral, his mother asked by Dad to come by the house, and he went. She thanked him for coming and standing by her son.
My father was a mechanic at heart and by trade, and his father, a machinist, never approved. I have the distinct impression my grandfather never really approved of anything Dad did.
My grandfather died when I was 12. I remember going to visit him after my grandmother died when I was 8 and he was alone. He would tell me how my father didn’t care about him and never came to see him, despite living less than 10 miles away. He would tell me how he just wanted to die and how it was my father that made him feel that way.
And I would go home and shame my own father with the words his father gave me, never knowing the truth—that my dad went to visit him nearly every day.
My father took that ration of shit from his father through me and never said a word to me, not one word in his own defense. After he died—when I was much older—my mother told me how often Dad visited his father.
For several years, I lived in Maryland. Dad would come visit in the summer, to get out of the Phoenix heat. One year he told me that when he was a teenager, there was a younger boy who lived near him, who seemed to have no friends and would often sit outside on the porch. When Dad and his friends went by, Dad would always wave at him. It made the boy happy when he waved, and Dad never forgot him.
That boy grew up, as boys do, and was sent to Vietnam during those tender years in between childhood and adulthood. He was killed in action there, and his name is on the Wall. I know because Dad and I went to find it. It was one of the very few things my father ever asked to do during any of his visits, a deeply moving experience for both of us I think.
Another year, we drove across country together. I flew out to Phoenix and we drove back to Maryland in his pick-up truck. We took our time, stopping when and where we felt like stopping, which included a Harley-Davidson dealership in nearly every state because I wanted to. We stopped at the James Dean museum and visited his grave. Dad was a fan, apparently; who knew?
We went to Indianapolis to the race track and stood on the start/finish line. I got a tattoo of a sparkplug on my shoulder for Dad, because, if you’re going to get a tattoo of a car part, it really ought to be in Indianapolis. Instead of saying “Champion” it says “Dad.” In my mind, these are synonymous. He put salve on it for me to make sure it healed.
We went home to Ohio and Dad showed me where he and Mom grew up, the roller rink where they met, the houses they lived in, the high schools they attended. We visited my grandparents’ graves, and the graves of their parents; his father’s parents’ grave was unmarked. We picked out a head stone together for them, something Dad had wanted to do for a long time he said. I could tell it really bothered him that it went unmarked for so long.
These are snapshots of my father. Far from a complete inventory, I think they give a sense of who he is. His love is fierce but quiet, and his loyalty is absolute. Much of who I am, and certainly all the best parts, I owe to him and Mom. He was and is the best kind of parent, one who lives with courage and authenticity and honor while his child watches.
After all these years, he still thinks he’s a lousy parent. It breaks my heart that he will take that lie to the grave with him.
And after all this time, he is still the very best person I have ever known.
Photo credit: Flickr/Greg Gjerdingen